After years of negotiations between Israel and Hamas, a deal that will secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for the release of more than 1,000 prisoners being held in Israeli jails, was completed on Tuesday night. Shalit was captured in June 2006 in a joint operation called “Dissipating illusion” which was carried out by three Palestinian armed factions: the Army of Islam; Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades; and the Popular Resistance Committees Salah A-Din. Hamas took sole custody of Shalit in 2007.
Tuesday night, Al Qassam Brigades – the armed wing of Hamas – held a televised news conference at which the deal with Israel was revealed. Khaled Mashal —Hamas’ leader-in-exile and chairman of the Hamas political bureau – told viewers that, “This deal will make history and accomplishing it is honorable and we promise to release all Palestinian prisoners in the future.” The conclusion of the agreement followed the visit of a convoy of Hamas officials led by Mashal—to Cairo for final consultations with Egyptian mediators.
At the news conference, Mashal applauded the success of the prisoner-swap deal, calling it a “national historical achievement.” Mashal also thanked Egypt, Syria, Qatar, Turkey and the German mediator for their efforts in making this swap deal a success. He explained that under terms of the agreement, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners will be set free released in return of releasing the lone Israeli soldier. “The process will happen on two stages; the first stage will witness the release of 450 Palestinian prisoners in a week, then the second stage will witness the release of 550 Prisoners in two months; and we promise the rest of the Palestinian prisoners to release them in the future.”
The released prisoners will be from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jerusalem, Golan Heights and Israeli Arabs. All 27 Palestinian female prisoners will be released, including Ahlam Al-Tamimi, Qahera Al-Sa’di and Worood Qasem, who instigated the hunger strike being staged by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Others serving life and long prison time will also be released.
Yesterday, an official of the Palestinian Authority who spoke under the condition of anonymity, told the French news agency that he had confirmed that the names of Ahmad Sa’adat, Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the man Israel claims was responsible for the assassination in 2001 of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi; and Marwan Bargouthi, a renowned Fatah leader, are both on the list of released Palestinian prisoners. By Tuesday night, many unofficial lists of Palestinian prisoners to be released were appearing on the Internet. All of them included Ahmed Sa’adat but none of them mentioned Marwan Bargoughti. Also frequently mentioned were Abdullah Al-Bargouthi, who is serving 67 life terms for killings in suicide bombings he organized; Na’el Al-Bargouthi; Bassem Al-Sa’adi; Yehya Al-Sinwar; and Abdul Khaled Al-Natsheh.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud ‘Abbas issued a statement from Caracas, where he is visiting now, applauding the success of the Shalit swap deal, saying, “We were waiting for this success for a while now, and I thank the Egyptian government for their huge efforts.”
A Hamas official, who also spoke anonymously, told The Media Line that the deal succeeded now and not five years ago because of several factors, which he identified as German mediation; the intensive efforts of Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Qatar; Israeli public opinion’s pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government for Shalit’s release; the visibility of the Shalit family and the public pressure it generated; the intensifying hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners held by Israel; and at the end, the Hamas convoy led by Mashal, which concluded that the timing was right and the deal was “convenient.”
When asked by The Media Line whether he would accept this deal if he were in Israel’s shoes, the Hamas official replied, “Yes and No. Yes, because the pressure is great and it has been going on for five years now. No, because many Israeli officials declared in the Israeli media that the deal isn’t fair in that it releases 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in return of one Israeli soldier.”
On the streets of Gaza, Gazans were excited but cautious. From past experience, they know full well that nothing is guaranteed until it actually happens. They refer to the many ceasefires agreed to by Hamas and Israel that later failed; and the many attempts to forge a unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah in a process that now remains stalemated. Nevertheless, citizens took to the streets to express their joy, thousands marching along Gaza’s main streets against a cacophony of gunshots and fireworks and the honking of car horns.
Egyptian media reported that officials in Cairo expressed happiness and relief to see five years of negotiations finally coming to a successful end. However, unlike Gaza, the Egyptian street was void of public celebrations as Egyptians focused on their own burning issues of the day.